From the Vault
The road to becoming the most noble of precious metals was not smooth
The introduction and sudden success of platinum in jewelry at the turn
of the 20th century recalls the story of the actor who becomes a star "overnight."
Overnight stardom really boils down to years of paying dues and working
hard while being overlooked and misunderstood.
The properties of platinum that make it perfect for jewelry exceptional
hardness, ductility and high melting point are the very properties
that kept it in obscurity for centuries. It's true platinum appeared on
a casket made by ancient Egyptians a few millennia ago, but small amounts
of platinum are found with almost all native gold so this appearance could
have been accidental. The Pre-Colombian Incas of Ecuador also used platinum,
but their fabricating techniques mysteriously disappeared when the Spanish
The Spanish considered platinum a nuisance and derogatorily named it
platina (small silver). While platinum resembled silver visually, it resisted
melting or forging, so the Spanish government banned its import in the 17th
century. What little platinum did make its way to Europe entered as contraband.
From Science to Sugar
By the 18th century, platinum had captured the interest of the scientific
community. Scientists first thought platina was an alloy of gold and iron.
In 1751 they concluded it was, in fact, a new metal. Continued research
disclosed platinum could be melted if small amounts of arsenic were added,
that it was malleable and could be beaten into sheets, and that it was extremely
ductile and could be drawn into very fine wire. (One gram of platinum yields
a thread over a mile long.)
By the end of the 18th century, platinum's non-reactive properties and
resistance to heat and acids made it invaluable as a vessel for scientific,
medical and industrial purposes. This brought it to the attention of people
in power. Just before the Revolution, Louis XVI hired goldsmith Janety to
fabricate a platinum sugar bowl and coffeepot; just after the Revolution,
the Republican French government hired him to make standard weights and
measures in platinum.
As the 19th century began, platinum was separated from other metals in its
group (palladium, iridium, osmium, rhodium and ruthenium). After new deposits
of platinum were discovered in Russia in 1822, it began to appear in decorative
chains. By the 1850s, it was featured in cuff links and shirt studs.
Initially, platinum was backed with gold (as silver was) to protect skin
and clothing from tarnish. Though unnecessary because platinum doesn't oxidize,
the gold backing elevated platinum in the public mind as a precious metal.
Three technological advances in the second half of the 19th century benefitted
- A furnace was developed that could melt platinum and its alloys on
a large scale.
- Techniques for refining platinum were improved.
- The oxyacetylene torch was invented, making bench work with platinum
After 1880, platinum began to supplant silver in settings for diamonds
and pearls and, around 1890, settings of pure platinum appeared. As demand
grew, the price of platinum rose until it surpassed silver and gold.
From 1890 to 1920, many bench jewelers continued to make jewelry in silver
and gold, resisting the trend toward platinum. Large jewelers such as Cartier
and Tiffany & Co. left the choice to the client.
Then the early 20th century garland-style jewelry set predominantly with
diamonds and pearls brought platinum to the forefront. Jewelers discovered
platinum could be worked very finely without losing shape, allowing the
fabrication of incredibly delicate and durable jewels. At last, platinum
had achieved the recognition it deserved as a precious metal, a distinction
no one questions today.
Two pins from the early 20th century show the transition
from settings of platinum backed with gold to settings of pure platinum.
Jewelry courtesy of Elise B. Misiorowski.
by Elise B. Misiorowski
Copyright © 1999 by Bond Communications.